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Chita Rivera: ‘West Side Story’ changed her career

by Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll

Chita Rivera was a dancer. Leonard Bernstein made her a singer, too.

And singing – plus stories – will be what fans will largely be treated to Monday night at Cotuit Center for the Arts when Rivera sits down with host/accompanist Seth Rudetsky to look back on her 65-year Broadway career.

Early in that career she performed in the stage debut of “West Side Story,” with music by the famed composer-conductor Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

“None of us thought we could sing,” the 84-year-old Rivera says of the “West Side Story” performers in a phone interview. “That was the time when dancers danced and singers sang.”

“West Side Story” “really opened the door” to dancers singing, says Rivera, who played fiery supporting character Anita. “I can honestly say that Leonard Bernstein probably gave me my first lesson. ... All the dancers – none of us knew we could open our mouths. We didn’t think it was necessary. Then along came a ‘West Side Story,’ and with a lot of work, we also told the story through music.”

That combination of abilities opened the door for Rivera to creating memorable characters in such classic shows as “Chicago,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” “Sweet Charity,” “The Rink” and “Nine.” So for Rudetsky, a writer and Sirius XM radio veteran, the challenge will likely be choosing what could best fit into the 90-minute interview/performing split that his “Broadway @” shows are known for.

While music from some of Rivera’s lesser-known shows, like 2015′s “The Visit,” might be included, Rivera expects she’ll be singing music closely associated with her, like “All That Jazz.”

″(Writer/lyricist) Fred Ebb said ‘They expect it, that’s what they want, give them what they want,’” Rivera says of performing the hit tunes. “I’m lucky that John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote (‘All That Jazz’) for me. It’s a wonderful piece of music.”

Rivera’s career is closely associated with Kander and Ebb, and she was drawn particularly to darker musicals like their “Chicago,” “Spiderwoman” and “Rink.”

“I like the dark musicals. I found at a certain point of my life that I was only doing dark musicals,” she says. She enjoyed working with that pair and book writer Terrence McNally, appreciating the deeper subjects they explored. “It depends on the story – that’s what makes (those musicals) different,” she says. “We all can’t be Mary Sunshine. Life just isn’t like that.”

Rivera is quick to point out, though, that she does “believe in laughter – lots of laughter” in her work and her life, and later quotes former co-star Dick Van Dyke for another important mantra: “Just keep moving.”

She says she would be happy, in fact, to have a seven-show-a-week Broadway schedule again. But, without that, she was heading to Italy on a trip a few days after the interview, looking forward to Cape Cod – especially its natural beauty, architecture, and fried oysters and clams, and planning her regular supper-club shows. In the fall, she will rehearse and perform a joint musical tour with singer/dancer/choreographer and longtime friend Tommy Tune.

Those shows, too, will include highlights of her long career, which has earned her numerous accolades, including two Tony Awards, eight more nominations, the Kennedy Center Honor for her body of work in 2002, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

While grateful and proud about them all, Rivera says the awards in Washington, D.C., meant so much in part because she grew up there, running around the monuments. “Just being there with (President) Obama was extraordinary,” she remembers, “and seeing George (W.) Bush having conversations with my daughter and seeing them laughing.”

About her whole career, she adds: “I’m very grateful for everything that’s happened to me. It’s been wonderful and full. I could never ask for anything more.

“And I’m still doing it! So it’s pretty exciting.”
Tags: 1957 broadway, anita, chita rivera, interviews, leonard bernstein
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